Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Knowledge versus Information

As I was wandering into a client today, Greg asked one of those questions that lead to a teachable moment: "So Skip, it's clear from our working sessions that you think that knowledge and information are two different things. I've always thought of them as interchangeable. What is the difference?"

What a great question. It took me a long time and a lot of work by one of my mentors, Russ Ackoff, to help me see that these two concepts are very different. My simple definition of information versus knowledge is that information is structured data and knowledge is information in action. However, to put the question in a larger context, I then introduced Ackoff's hierarchy which I've come to call WUKID - Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Information and Data.

The following are my practical definitions of WUKID:

  • Data - the raw stuff of the world. It could be a temperature reading 67 degrees or the price of a book or any of the raw things that we encounter each day.
  • Information - provides structure for data. A weather report puts the temperature (data) in context. The outside air temperature in Seattle, WA on July 10, 2007 was 67 degrees at 2PM and the sun is shining. Each of the components of the previous sentence is data put together to form a glob of information.
  • Knowledge - is actionable information. Given the above weather information string I would know that it is going to be a nice day but cool for that time of year so I would carry a light sweater or jacket if I were to go outside.
  • Understanding - is seeing patterns in knowledge and information. If the above weather string were combined with 20-30 days of similar strings of information and I had lived in Seattle for 10 or more years, I would be able to see a pattern of it being a cool summer. Understanding has a longer time component than information and knowledge. Understanding incorporates double loop learning as described in Schon's The Reflective Practitioner.
  • Wisdom - is going beyond the levels of understanding to see larger scale systems and be able to predict behaviors and outcomes in the longer term future (5-15 years) based on seeing the patterns that arise through understanding. When lots of data over many years was refined into information, knowledge and understanding patterns, scientists were able to see long term weather patterns like el nino and la nina. Based on these patterns weather forecasters can predict longer term trends in Seattle and act accordingly.

Elizabeth Orna in Making Knowledge Visible: Communicating Knowledge Through Information Products describes the process whereby information is transformed into knowledge and vice versa. She claims that information lives in the outside where it becomes visible and available to others and be able to feed their knowledge. But knowledge is not something that I can give to someone else, because information has to be transformed into something that lives only in a human mind. We are constantly and generally invisibly transforming information into knowledge and back into information for others to consume. Orna's diagram of this transformation can be seen in Slide 2 of a presentation I gave at the KM Summer Institute.

Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh go further in their distinctions between information and knowledge claiming that knowledge only results when we have a physical body that can sense and act in the world.

Greg wrestled with these ideas for a few minutes and then it was clear that an "Ah Hah" experience dawned. "So if I understand these definitions, then what you did with Attenex Patterns was to design and create software that functioned at all of the levels of WUKID. Am I missing something?"

I love it when somebody connects information from multiple discussions and then achieves a meta level of understanding. I shared with Greg that we intentionally designed the system to work at the UKID levels of operation with the proviso that we couldn't provide the knowledge layer directly. Rather we had to design the system so that it takes very little time for the user to be able to act on the patterns of information and understanding that the system generates. However, as much as I would like to, the Attenex Patterns software does not act at the Wisdom level.

To help Greg continue his transforming information into knowledge, I pointed him to other resources online that provide additional information and context on WUKID:

The real test for Greg will be to see if he can transform the insights, information and knowledge of this discussion into designs for the software products that he is working on to incorporate the many layers of WUKID.

1 comment:

Syntropy said...

I like your distinctions. I would add that, if Wisdom comes after Understanding, after Knowledge, after Information, after data, I would propose that Enlightenment is the praxis of sustainability: reflection, inquiry and action on self, other and world to understand and transform them by means of attaining sustainability in living systems through the interconnections of those systems. It thus involves an ongoing process of creative intelligence pursuing vision and purpose in the organization, knowledge, action and change of systems.